Now, with a name like Smoked Aubergine Crush, could this dish really go wrong? It's the most romantic thing I've ever heard a roasted eggplant puree called, and was at least half, if not three-quarters of the reason why I chose to make this for dinner last night (though it was less of a seduction attempt than a long-awaited catch-up dinner with Gemma). It also sent me on a foraging mission to Kalustyan's for a few more glass jars to add to my already over-stuffed cupboards.
Kalustyan's is, of course, a charming place where you're likely to spend most of your disposable income, if you're a food-minded person, on all manners of jars and bottles and packets of spices and sauces and pastes and what-not. However, when the turmeric you buy goes and stains not only your frying pan, but your Kitchenaid spatula and your countertop, too, you find yourself less amusingly charmed and more completely irritated. But never mind. High is the price you pay for good food.
The recipe originates from Pondicherry (a former French colony and trading post in India from 1670 to 1954) and was printed in the LA Times's review of La Porte des Indes (a London restaurant) cookbook.The cuisine that emerged from this hybrid culture featured French cooking techniques blended with traditional Indian foods and spices. The recipes Barbara Hansen mentioned in her review (Crab Malabar, Poulet Rouge, Shrimp Curry) sounded bewitching and reason enough to go out and buy the book (it's apparently well-tested and most of the recipes seem relatively simple to make).
And if there's anything that makes me feel more capable in the kitchen than concocting an Asian recipe, it's concocting a Southeast Asian recipe. No? With all those various powders and seeds and aromatics, cooking Indian food is like a glorious sort of chemistry class, in which the final outcome will make your tummy very happy indeed.
I roasted a one-pound eggplant until soft, let it cool and then processed it, sans skin, to a greenish puree. In a separate pan, I cooked mustard seeds (popping all the way), chopped onion, hot chiles and chopped ginger for a few minutes (but not long enough - in the final product some of these bits were a bit too crunchy for my taste). I added the accursed turmeric and then the eggplant, and let this mixture cook for 15 minutes over low heat before adding a few spoons of coconut milk and a spritz of lemon juice.
The result? A creamy, spicy, smoky puree (albeit with some textural surprises) that lends itself quite nicely to being scooped with flatbreads (more on those tomorrow) and gobbled up for dinner in an ethnically incorrect, yet pretty tasty fashion. If you wanted to turn this into a square meal, a pot of hot rice and a simple fish fillet could be a good way of rounding it out. I sort of preferred eating the puree as part of a grazing dinner, with a dollop of yogurt to cool the heat, and the heady scent of spices in my house.
Smoked Aubergine Crush
1 1-lb eggplant
2 tablespoons oil
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 onion, chopped
1 3/4-inch piece ginger root, peeled and finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon chopped)
1 teaspoon finely chopped red chile (jalapeno or serrano, seeded), or more to taste
1 teaspoon finely chopped green chile (jalapeno or serrano, seeded), or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 cup coconut milk
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro for garnish (optional, in my opinion)
A few slivers red chile for garnish
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Pierce the eggplant on each side with the tines of a fork and bake for 50 minutes, or until very tender. Remove from the oven and cool. When cool enough to handle, halve it lengthwise, scoop out the flesh and blend or process it to a puree.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan. Add the mustard seeds and cover immediately to prevent the seeds from popping out of the pan. When the mustard seeds pop, add the onion and cook until translucent. Then add the ginger and chopped chiles and cook for 2 minutes.
3. Reduce the heat and add the turmeric, followed by the pureed eggplant. Cook, stirring, over low heat for 15 minutes. Add the coconut milk and stir 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice and salt to taste. Serve hot, garnished with chile (and cilantro, if using).